Profiles in Disruption: Why Mentorship is Key

March 20, 2015Some of the most prominent people have credited their success to mentors who have had an indelible influence on their lives. Oprah Winfrey confided in Maya Angelou when it came to navigating through life; Lean In’s Sheryl Sandberg turned to Larry Summers for advice while she was at student  at Harvard; and Xerox CEO Ursula Burns learned a lot from Wayland Hicks as she scaled  the ladder at Xerox. Serving as our career confidants and coaches, mentors inspire us to work harder and push further.

In the profile below we invite you to meet Katlyn Grasso, a senior at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania who is originally from Buffalo, New York. She is the founder and CEO of GenHERation, Managing Practice Leader of the Wharton Small Business Development Center, and Co-President of Wharton Ambassadors. Katlyn was kind of enough to share her thoughts on the importance of mentorship.

“Do you have a mentor?”

Although this is a seemingly simple question, the word “mentor” registers as a foreign term to many high school girls. In an attempt to understand the factors that influence leadership development in young women, I interviewed more than 700 girls around the world. Through a series of focus groups, personal interviews, and an online survey, I gained valuable insights into how teenage girls perceive leadership. Only 38% of the girls in the study could name their mentors. The remaining 62% appeared to be puzzled by the question. They requested a definition and examples of mentorship before recognizing the absence of mentors in their own lives.

These alarming results caused me to question the role that mentors play in the leadership-development process. For the purposes of this research project, I defined a “mentor” as a figure who provides guidance and encouragement to advance the goals of his or her mentee. Adolescent psychologists have concluded that mentorship benefits teenagers the most when their mentor is the kind of person they can realistically envision themselves becoming in the future. This seems more attainable when the mentor and mentee share similar characteristics, such as gender, educational background, or hometown.

When young people lack access to relatable mentors, a perceptual leadership gap ensues in and cognitive dissonance emerges in one’s sense of one’s ability and one’s likelihood of succeeding. This is especially problematic for girls, due to the scarcity of women in positions of power in politics, business, and academia. If girls do not see women in the Oval Office or in Fortune 500 boardrooms, it may be harder for them to imagine having careers in male-dominated industries.  I created GenHERation to provide an experiential learning platform where high school girls can learn from female professionals and exercise their leadership skills. Since March of 2014, we have empowered more than 10,000 girls across the United States through our website and regional events.

During the month of January, Catalyst collaborated with GenHERation, to announce the Catalyst Digital Challenge. Girls from across the country were asked to develop a strategic plan to use social media to raise awareness about Catalyst’s #DisruptTheDefault campaign. Over 50 proposals were submitted and Madison Dawkins, a senior at the Baldwin School in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, was selected as the winner. As her prize, Madison will be paired with a mentor from Catalyst to help support her Not Equal Yet project, a lecture series she designed to educate high school girls about women in leadership.

Stay tuned for more about Madison in coming blogs.

The views expressed herein are solely those of the guest blogger and do not necessarily reflect those of Catalyst. Catalyst does not endorse any political candidates. The post and the comments are presented only for the purpose of informing the public.